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Lumps of coal or a boost to development?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Driving at night in Cameroon some years ago, I saw schoolchildren sitting under the streetlights doing their homework—because they had no electricity at home.  Today 560 million Africans live without access to electricity.  No country in the world has advanced economically without adequate power supply.

Electricity is essential not just to power factories and offices, but to ensure that milk and drugs are transported safely, and that kids—especially those in rural areas who don’t even have streetlights—get an education.

Africa emits 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.  South Africa, a country that has not invested in power generation in 20 years, is trying to provide much-needed electricity to its citizens and those in neighboring countries by investing in one of the cleanest “supercritical” coal plants—cleaner than many in the U.S. and Europe.  It is also investing $250 million in solar and wind power and $485 million in energy efficiency improvements and a cleaner transport system to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from moving coal from the mine to the power plant.

This project is coming under some criticism for not using wind and solar power alternatives—even though these will be available at scale only “by 2050.” 

Given this project’s minuscule contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, do we want South Africans to forgo the additional electricity for the next 40 years?


Submitted by M. Khaliquzzaman on
The criticism of new coal based power plants in developing countries has arisen because the equity issue has not been taken into consideration. Most LDCs have per capita GHG emission of less than one ton compared to 10 tons or more for developed countries.So, in order to relieve the misery of the people of developing countries especially LDCs, coal based power plant should be a valid option if power from other sources is not available at similar cost.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Perhaps while we are at it, developing countries should spend billions driving model Ts, use thalidomide for pregnancy nausea, spray DDT on farm fields and construct entire railroads of steam locomotives, or better yet mule teams. We've learned a lot from mistakes made in developed countries, mistakes that have cost trillions to correct, and will costs trillions more. We know some things are destructive or inefficient and too damaging for rich countries, why is it "fair" to foist 19th century technology on South Africa? If they are investing so much in this "high-tech" coal plant (3.75 billion from the World Bank) why aren't they investing nearly as much in alternatives like wind solar or nuclear (all technologies that South Africa can and has produced.), instead this piece acts excited about pledges to spend 1/5 of this amount on wind and solar. Once a massive coal plant is in the ground- those sunk costs commit the country to either using coal for 50+ years or taking massive losses abandoning the plant. Also, M. Khaliquzzaman, on the issue of fairness, who do you think is going to suffer the burden of increased disease, drought, and storms? Rich countries? No it will be the poor of poor countries- so how much sense does it make for S. Africa to contribute to the problem with greenfield investments when they could lead the way with alternatives? Finally, do we really know what the CO2 footprint of people in developing countries is? When i was in B-Desh and India, large areas that were "forest" were stripped to nothing or a few twiggy trees and every village house was burning a fire all day everyday. Not to mention the massive unregulated brick "factories". I'm sure the footprint isn't the same per cap consumption in US or Europe, but just because it isn't measured doesn't mean it isn't happening.

Thanks for your comment. I don't think the analogy with thalidomide or even DDT applies here because these were technologies that directly harmed the user. The issue with coal is that it produces carbon dioxide, whose only harm is that it contributes to global greenhouse gas build-up which, in turn, contributes to global climate change. The contribution of this coal plant to climate change is minuscule, and the harm to South Africa even tinier.

Submitted by Patrick Mwendwa on
While it is true to say that no country in the world would develop without electrical power, it stands to show where most African leaders priorities lie. Instead, too much focus and energy seems to be placed on the trivial many undertakings leaving no room and funds for the vital few. Again, our leaders need search deep within themselves and find out whether they indeed have their subjects problems in their best interest. No country in the world can be termed developed, unless energy, water, transportation and IT are well developed and accessible by each and every citizen. Patrick M African Native (Kenya)

Submitted by Hudson Lucky Masheti on
South Africans new energy strategic initiative is sound, for it is not just lumps of coal, but minuscule contribution to green house gas emissions and a boost to development, in the concept of poverty reduction through job creation ventures. As in the case of my country (Kenya); the government of Kenya commissioned a feasibility study on the establishment of a 300 MW coal power plant in Mombasa. The plant will require 0.9 to 1.1 million tones of coal per year, all of which will have to be landed at the Mombasa port and transported to the power station. This is not the only energy sector project, others are; geothermal development, hydro power development, renewable energy, solar electricity generators, wind power generation, bio-fuel production, development of A300 – 1,000 Nuclear power plant and exploration of hydro carbons and petroleum. In my country (Kenya), commercial energy is dominated by petroleum and electricity as the prime movers of the modern sector of the economy, while wood fuel provides energy needs of the traditional sector, including rural communities and the urban poor. By now we have rural electrification programme ongoing all over the country. Based on my country’s case study, I want South Africans to go for the additional electricity for the next (40) forty years. Hudson Lucky Masheti Kenya (East Africa)

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